Symposium Spotlights: Going Gradeless as an Inclusive, Perpetual Practice

Duke Learning Innovation co-hosted the 2021 Pandemic Pedagogy Research Symposium on May 5, alongside institutional partners: the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan, Penn’s Online Learning Initiative, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning at Princeton, and the Stanford Center for Professional Development. The Symposium featured presentations and panel discussions on new and emerging research related to teaching and learning during the pandemic with a focus on applied scholarship that advances the art and science of teaching. 

In the presentation Going Gradeless: A Pandemic Influenced, Perpetual Practice, Full Professor in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University Sharon Lauricella discussed her experience of “going gradeless” (often called “ungrading”) during the pandemic. 

Lauricella opened her presentation by asking members of the audience to share through a poll what was the worst grade they received as an undergraduate, noting that earning Cs, Ds and Fs did not affect the long-term career paths of the participants. In walking through common justifications for grades such as motivating students, representing learning and paving the way to graduate school, Lauricella argued, “But really none of these are good reasons for having grades.”

“We need to care about how we assess students, how we give students grades, and how students earn their grades for reasons of equity, diversity, and inclusion,” she said. “Grades don’t always reflect what a student learned, and grades don’t always reflect where a student started and where a student finished.”

After noting the problematic thinking that underlines the grading system, Lauricella provided practical advice for instructors interested in moving beyond traditional grading schemas. 

Key Takeaways 

  1. Provide students with detailed feedback. Lauricella said research shows students pay more attention to their grades than feedback, so in removing the grade from the equation, students were able to focus on the qualitative response. 
  1. Allow students to create rubrics. In giving students the opportunity to create their own rubrics, Lauricella noted, students felt “a sense of ownership, a sense of clairty and agency.” 
  1. Encourage peer assessment. Students in Lauricella’s class submitted work to a shared Google Drive for peer assessment. While some students were initially nervous about sharing their work, Lauricella’s students enjoyed learning from one another’s different viewpoints. “My students said it was one of the best parts of this rearranged, pandemic learning,” Lauricella said. 
  1. Ask students to complete a self-assessment to accompany an assignment. Lauricella said that this exercise can be used across the disciplines. Self-assessments can include questions such as: How did you meet the requirements of this assignment? Did you do anything different? Did you take any risks? Did you do anything unusual, that did or didn’t work? What do I need to consider in assessing your work? 
  1. Provide students with low stakes or no stakes assignments. Lauricella said these types of assignments can take different forms, but the idea is to give students the opportunity to assess their own learning. 
  1. When creating an assignment, Lauricella reflects on by asking herself three questions. Will this make my students more interesting at parties? Would I want to do this assignment? Will I hate my life when I am giving students feedback? 

“Teaching should be fun, learning should be fun,” she said. “Let’s give students the opportunity to be creative.” 

Learn More 

You can follow Lauricella on Twitter @AcademicBatgirl, where she shares more of her instructional and academic work, including information in relation to “going gradeless” in higher education.

If you’re interested in how instructors at Duke are moving away from traditional grading, you can view the roundtable Transitioning Courses to Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory: A Faculty Panel and Discussion

Interested in implementing Lauricella’s ideas into your Fall 2021 course? You can contact Learning Innovation at to set up a consultation.